Upward Bound Turns 50

Nervous but determined, the 15-year-old boy walked into a conference room in Columbus, Ohio, for a fateful interview. If it went well, perhaps he’d have a chance to be the first member of his impoverished family to attend college.

That was 34 years ago, but Wil Haygood – the renowned journalist and author whose writing inspired the film “The Butler” – says he remembers it “like it was yesterday.”

“I knew in my heart and soul that this was a monumental moment for little Wil Haygood,” he recalled.

At stake was a place in Upward Bound – founded as an experimental program in 1964 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty with a goal of helping students from low-income families get a college education.

A few weeks after his interview, Haygood received a letter accepting him in the Upward Bound college prep program taking place that summer of 1970 on the campus of Ohio Dominican University.

“The college wasn’t but a few miles from our housing project, but as a poor kid, you never set foot there,” Haygood said. “It was as if I had been lifted up and taken to an oasis.”

Haygood flourished during three summers in the federally funded program and credits the professors there – and their tough-love approach – with girding him to succeed in college.

“They didn’t allow us to make excuses because we were black or poor,” he said. “They said when you get to college, it will be 10 times harder.”

Haygood went on to thrive at Miami University of Ohio, graduating and returning last year to give the commencement speech.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Upward Bound. It served 2,061 participants at 17 locations in 1965; last year it served about 76,000 students at more than 1,000 locations in 50 states.

In all, more than 2 million people have participated – studying English literature and composition, math and science, and getting practical advice on college admissions. Upward Bound alumni include Oprah Winfrey and actresses Viola Davis and Angela Bassett.

“It’s a 50-year-old program that continues to pay back – giving us hope, and teaching so many lessons along the way,” said Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education.

One of the keys to Upward Bound’s success is that its local programs are conducted at college campuses, whether it’s after-school and weekend sessions during the school year or residential summer programs.

Throughout its history, Upward Bound has compiled a strong record of success. Of the students who take part for at least three years, more than 90 percent go directly to college after completing high school.

That level of performance has earned Upward Bound strong bipartisan support in Congress, yet the program nonetheless faces fiscal challenges because of the broader turmoil on Capitol Hill.

The program’s budget, which started out at $6 million 50 years ago, reached an all-time high of almost $327 million in 2012, but was trimmed by about 5 percent last year along with many other federal programs.